Co-creator of Coffee By Design, Mary Allen Lindemann knows that inclusive communities can spring from a coffee shop
“A cup of coffee brings people together.”
That sounds so simple and obvious, right? Like two friends catching up at a café. Or colleagues starting their workday with a carafe of coffee at a meeting. But the statement actually means so much more coming from Mary Allen Lindemann. Because what the co-creator of Coffee By Design is really expressing when she says “a cup of coffee brings people together” is that inclusive and warm communities—that improve and enrich life—can spring from simple coffee shops.
In these communities, “regular customers” dealing with typical issues and problems in their lives—as well as people struggling with mental illness or coping with HIV/AIDS or adjusting to a new country—all sit comfortably together, drinking coffee, and getting to know one another. And maybe even become lifelong friends.
Lindemann knows this “magic can happen” because such revitalizing communities have developed at her five CBD locations in Greater Portland—and they’ve even led to richer communities across the globe.
Lindemann may call it magic, but she has worked very intentionally to create welcoming places since opening the first CBD on Congress Street 24 years ago with business partner Alan Spear. There were many challenges to making a go of their first shop, located in what was then known as a recovering porn district.
For starters, early CBD patrons were wary about hanging out with HIV/AIDS patients from The AIDS Project across the street. Lindemann’s response was to blanket her shop with educational pamphlets.
“I wanted everybody to understand that it is completely safe to sit next to someone with AIDS and drink a cup of coffee,” she explains.
When the Augusta Mental Health Institute closed in 2004, many of its patients flocked to Portland for services and would visit CBD with caseworkers. But when they stopped by on their own on weekends, they’d often be disruptive and make other patrons uncomfortable. Banning them wasn’t an option for Lindemann. Instead, she brought in social workers to teach her staff the best way to interact with challenging customers and convey the rules expected of all patrons. As a result, more times than not, a mentally challenged customer would settle in and be able to stay. Such training is still part of each new CBD employee’s orientation.
“The fact is that we all have the potential for mental illness, for substance abuse, for family trauma,” Lindemann says. “All people deserve to be treated with respect. Everyone should be welcome at the table.”
She applied the same inclusive philosophy to customers from Portland’s immigrant population. Over the years, as she developed friendships with immigrants and created coffee roasting facilities and a wholesale business, Lindemann visited their countries to get firsthand knowledge of their coffee production.
And over more time, as friendships deepened, she and Spear funded improvements in those countries, not just related to coffee production but for residents’ lives in general. They’re involved with organizations dedicated to improving coffee farmers’ quality of life and have initiated their own projects directly, helping to get a wellness facility built in Jardin, Colombia, for example, and working on community initiatives in places like Guatemala, India and Burundi.
Lindemann and Spear have received many honors over the years for their good works. In 2017, they both received Humanitarian Awards from Spurwink, and Lindemann will be given the Hon. Edmund S. Muskie Access to Justice Award, which honors commitment to the public good, this May.
Lindemann is involved in numerous organizations in Maine, including Portland Ovations, a performing arts organization; Equality Maine, which works to ensure equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Maine; and New Ventures Maine, which offers programs that help Mainers achieve financial security. She co-founded Portland Buy Local, which supports independent Portland-based businesses, and remains committed to helping Maine’s immigrant population.
That led to her friendship with Alain Nahimana, former president of the Burundi community in Portland, and most recently to her “second full-time job”—helping him to get the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center off the ground in August.
Executive Director Nahimana says he specifically sought out Lindemann for help with the Preble Street center, which aims to strengthen the immigrant community.
“I wanted her involved because Mary Allen, to me, is the magic person you go to when you want to open doors,” he says. “She has a lot of energy, she gets things done in a hands-on way, she’s passionate about what she works on. She inspires us.”
Lindemann’s involvement in immigrant matters also introduced her to Danielle Conway, dean of and professor at the University of Maine School of Law.
“I take a stand when I think it’s important, and as a result, I feel like I’ve been given the gift of a crazy, wonderful life right now, surrounded by great people.”
“Ever since meeting MAL (Mary Allen Lindemann), she has supported me and other new members of Maine’s communities by attending a number of law school events,” Conway says. “Our relationship has grown deeper as we both have looked to serve the new American community. We are confidantes, friends, sisters. When I need advice, counsel or a sympathetic ear, I turn to Mary Allen. She is an example of how boundless energy focused on community and people changes lives for the better. She is a professional, a mother, a mentor and a muse. My life in Maine has color and depth because Mary Allen is in it.”
Lindemann, 57, says she owes her sense of building community to her parents who set an example about helping others and being good citizens. She grew up in a privileged household with four siblings in Greenwich, Connecticut, with parents who strongly believed in social justice. Her mother brought her to many civil rights marches and other civically minded events.
“I do believe in ‘to whom much is given, much is required’ because of them,” she says. “And I do still want to honor them both. I believe there is a purpose for all of us. It’s whether you choose to act on it. I take a stand when I think it’s important, and as a result, I feel like I’ve been given the gift of a crazy, wonderful life right now, surrounded by great people.”
Patricia McCarthy is a longtime writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).